"Learn how to cook — try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless and above all have fun." Words from the wise, or more specifically, words from the six-foot-tall culinary heroine known as Julia Child. Most chefs worth their salt today have internalized many of her witty and whimsical aphorisms, just like they have memorized her classic French recipes.
Julia Child would have been 102 on Friday, and to celebrate her life’s work, we’ve spoken to 10 chefs, food writers, and other prominent figures who remember Child fondly, from Jacques Pepin who co-hosted a TV show with her, to younger chefs like Ken Oringer, who simply recalls his excitement when she walked into his restaurant.
Wine Paired Perfectly with her Sense of Humor
“We were asked to speak at an early morning conference at Fetzer Vineyards in the 1990s that Julia was holding court at… Stephan Pyles and I were asked to go on directly after her interview. When we got to the table that she had been speaking to, we saw coffee cups in front of us… Stephan spoke up first and asked where ‘we might be able to get some (life-restoring) coffee before going on for our radio stint?’ Julia held up her empty cup (pinky finger extended) and beamed brightly at us saying in her classical voice, ‘Oh! This is not coffee, Dearies... It's a delicious mug of Gewürztraminer!’” — Chef Norman Van Aken, Norman’s, Florida
Julia Child with chef Norman Van Aken.
Her Impact was Felt in Even the Most Unlikely Places
“Julia invited my significant other, Paul, and me to join her at a dinner party at a friend’s condo… The condo building was undergoing some renovation. We pulled into a parking space, and as Julia got out, she was approached by a young construction worker, complete with bright yellow hardhat and the requisite tool belt. ‘Aren’t you Julia Child?’ he asked.
‘Well, yes, as a matter of fact I am,’ she said.
‘I want to thank you,’ he said. ‘I watch your show all the time, and you taught me how to cook. Simple things. But I’m really enjoying it.’
Julia thanked him, of course, but I just about burst into tears. Here was the power of her ‘reach’: The most unlikely person you would think to tune in to watch Julia Child. And yet, she had managed to captivate him — and teach him — as much as the rest of us.” —Barbara Fairchild, former editor of Bon Appetit
She Was Not a Stickler for Rules
“I knew Julia for close to half a century when we taped our show together at the end of the ‘90s. On PBS we had a sponsor come in one time — a big vice president at Land o’ Lakes. Julia was never the type of person to kowtow to a sponsor. So one time, she said she wanted to make her own dough. I asked her how much flour, eggs, butter, she would need, and she said ‘I want Crisco.’ And I said, ‘we can’t have Crisco, we have to have Land O’ Lakes.’ So we ended up having half-Crisco, half-Land O’ Lakes butter on the show. That’s the way she was. She acted in person the way she was on television. On TV, of course it’s entertainment, but we always had to teach something. We would always say at the end of the day, ‘what did we teach them?’ It was very important to her.” — Jacques Pépin, world-renowned French chef
Chef Dorothy Hamilton with chefs Julia Child and Jacques Pépin
She Always Had Time for a Martini and Lunch with a Friend
“Julia loved a martini. One sultry, summer Sunday, in the late morning upstairs at the Ritz in Boston, as I was nursing the worst hangover of my life, a fellow named Colman Andrews suggested a Fernet as an antidote. I felt better for about 60 seconds. I then promptly ordered another, and a smiling, effervescent Julia pranced up to say hello. I quickly downed the Fernet, braved a smile and if memory serves had a martini with Julia. I remember sadly declining a meal with her… I have always regretted not having had lunch with her that day, but we did enjoy ours.” — Jonathan Waxman, Executive Chef, Barbuto, New York City
She Was a Champion for Female Chefs
“The first time I met Julia, she came to the French Culinary Institute, now the International Culinary Center. She was curious. She loved and supported any woman working in the food profession. There were so few of us! She swooped in, and then started asking all kinds of questions. Full of good cheer. But she asked a million questions about ‘me.’ She looked you in the eye and really wanted your story. I was knocked off kilter. I wanted to know about her! But her questions kept coming. She made me feel important. As I got to know Julia over the years, I realized she did that with every young professional. She made them feel special, she asked lots of questions and most importantly she encouraged, no, pushed us all to do all we could do.” — Dorothy Hamilton, founder and CEO of the International Culinary Center
She Didn’t Discriminate When it Came to Her Love of Food
“Every time I met up with Julia, I knew to bring her a bag of her favorite snack: Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. She could and would consume the entire bag by the time we parted.” — James Villas, chef and cookbook author
She Wasn’t Afraid to Steer the Conversation, and She Had a Kind Word for Everyone
“In the early ‘90s, she filmed a show with me. I had chosen to do something so unbelievably simple, making a tapenade — just chopping olives and mixing [them] with garlic — that I think she didn’t quite know how to even ask me a question. And yet she gamely soldiered on — she would say things like, “So how DO you pit that olive, Alice?” And all I could think was, does she really want me to tell her? You can’t tell Julia Child how to pit an olive! I felt so foolish that I should be telling her how to do anything. But she couldn’t have been kinder or more gracious about it — as she always was.
There was another time when we were on a panel together. It was a time when I was particularly excited about organic everything, and was getting a little strident about it. At one point she turned to me with a smile and said, “Oh, my dear! You’re taking all the joy out of cooking with your politics!” I had to laugh. She always gently reminded me not to take myself too seriously, for which I was so grateful. Julia knew that it’s always better to win people over with warmth, good humor and great food, instead of trying to preach at them.” — Alice Waters, James Beard Award-winning chef, pioneer of Californian cuisine
Chef Marion Cunningham pictured with chef Alice Waters giving flowers to chef Julia Child.
She Left Her Mark on Even Those Who Didn’t Know Her Personally
“I barely knew Julia — we nodded at one another at the American Institute of Food and Wine, but that was about it. And while I have long lived in her hometown Pasadena, I don't really have any anecdotes to relate. The time I was supposed to escort her to Australia but didn't? Invoking her memory in dismay when Paula Deen was named the Grand Marshall of the Rose Parade? My covetous glances at her childhood home, a long-vacant old craftsman owned by the state transportation agency? Nothing interesting, I’m afraid.” — Jonathan Gold, Los Angeles Times food critic
She was Always Helping People, Even in Her Later Years
“Julia would come into Clio often in her later years. She was the most kind, gracious woman who we would always come into the kitchen to meet all the cooks and talk with them about their background. Even at that age, she was such an inspiration for our team. She loved that we featured bone marrow and squab and would always go for the foie gras. At her 90th birthday party, I splurged at the silent auction on one of her first turkey basters (signed), which remains one of my most prized possessions to this day." — Ken Oringer, Executive Chef, Clio, Toro
She Put People at Ease
“I used to go to her house in Provence. One time I went to see her and she was cooking a leg of lamb, and she asked me to make the lamb jus. Of course my knees were knocking, but she loved to have people come together, it was never about herself… She loved duck though, and every time she came into my restaurant, she’d order duck. She actually came into my restaurant for her last meal before she moved into assisted living. What else can I say? She only liked beans if they were cooked. She hated arugula. The beauty of her was she truly wanted to get people together. She was a very generous woman.”— Lydia Shire, executive chef, Scampo, Boston
Joanna Fantozzi is an Associate Editor with The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter@JoannaFantozzi